Friday, April 26, 2013

FFB: Benighted - J. B. Priestley

A torrential rainstorm, roads impassable due to flooding and mudslides, a temperamental car and three terrified travellers trapped by the storm. Reminds you of news headlines of the awful weather destroying the Midwest and the East Coast, doesn't it?  It's also the opening of Benighted (1928), J. B. Priestley's second novel and the basis for the classic film The Old Dark House.  But there's more to this story than just a group of stranded strangers forced to stay in a spooky house assailed by the elements and lorded over by creepy occupants. The bulk of the novel is devoted to existential and philosophical conversations, something most readers will not be prepared for.  By the end the entire novel seems to be a kind of strange and eerie allegory about facing one's fears and finding purpose in life.

Philip and Margaret Waverton, along with their ne'er-do-well friend Roger Penderel are on their way to Shrewsbury when they are forced to seek shelter due to a storm of apocalyptic proportions.  Huge chinks of the hillside come tumbling into the roadway, the earth literally trembles and shakes, torrents of water are flooding the roads and nearly wash their car off a cliffside.  The opening scene is every bit of what classic film fans may recall of James Whale's screen version of the book. But after meeting the brutish and mute manservant Morgan and the eccentric Femm family the travellers settle in for a long night by discussing the meaning of a life and sharing stories from their past. The bickering Wavertons and cynical Penderal are later joined by Sir William Porterhouse and his companion Gladys Du Cane, an ex-showgirl.

Oddly, for three quarters of the story it seems as if nothing really happens but bad weather and lots of talk. The dialogue is a mix of Gothic intimations and highbrow philosophizing.  Horace and Rebecca Femm, a very creepy couple of siblings, drop hints about their invalid brother confined to an upstairs bedroom and refer to another area off limits in the house. They warn the guests to steer clear of Morgan, keep him away from the alcohol lest he get into one of his frequent drunken rages. With these comforting thoughts they exit and allow their guests to settle in until the storm abates.  It's no wonder Penderel starts a conversation game along the lines of "Truth or Dare "to keep everyone distracted and their minds off the possible dangers that lie in wait in the house. With the storm so relentless in its onslaught, it's as if they are waiting for the end of the world. Why not talk, smoke and drink if the end is nigh anyway?

Then the electricity fails and the guests are plunged into a darkness that is both literal and figurative.  Simple tasks take on extraordinary dimension. The importance of keeping candles lit and rationing out matches are like acts of survival. A scene in which characters must decide who will make a dreaded journey to the top of a staircase to retrieve a lantern becomes an arduous and frightful odyssey:

He crept up,slowly, shakily, his shadow leaping and sprawling before him. There were little noises everywhere now, not a stair in the house without its creak. All that part of the house that yawned above him seemed tense, expectant. The little patch of darkness at the top was thick and crawling with unrevealed terrors. A step or two more and out of that blackness would spring a white gibbering face. He had a dream like that once -- it all came back to him, raw and palpitating...

When Philip and Margaret finally penetrate the bed chamber of the elderly Sir Roderick they learn of a secret within the house that threatens them all with destruction. It is at this point that the novel suddenly reaches a fever pitch of fearfulness and utter doom. The guests having been plunged into a world of darkness and dread now must literally fight for their lives. The mood is intense, surreal and often terrifying. The search for light, the obsession of locked rooms and keeping track of who has which key, the repeated talk of the dark are not just used as tropes of the Gothic genre but rather become transcendent metaphors. The climax delivers a few unexpected shocks and moments of true terror fairly free of excessive melodrama or histrionics. After all the anticipation of hidden danger and potential violence Priestley unleashes the beasts and gets his desired effect.

Benighted is one of the many reprint editions offered from Valancourt Books and is available from the usual online bookselling sites.  Dare to spend an evening in the Femm house with this motley crew.  I guarantee a frisson or two during your stay.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Here Comes A Chopper - Gladys Mitchell

I'm not a betting man but if I were I would've bet I wouldn't have found Here Comes a Chopper (1946) to be one of the most engaging books I've read this year. Why? Because I have a very bad history with Gladys Mitchell. She's one of those writers for whom I've failed to find a long lasting appeal. However, from the very first page I was hooked with this one.

Roger Hoskyn intends to go on a walking tour with his pal Bob, but Bob has broken his foot the very day they are to go off together. In his place he sends his sister Dorothy to break the news to Roger. While riding a bus with Roger she pleads with Roger to continue the trip as planned but to take her along as a substitute companion. Begrudgingly he agrees and they go off together but soon get lost. Eventually they find their way to an 18th century estate house where a birthday party for a young boy is about to start. One of the guests, Harry Lingfield, has inexplicably gone missing making for an ominous thirteen guests. Roger and Dorothy find themselves recruited on the spur of the moment as unexpected guests all because the hostess has a superstition about 13 people at a dinner table. They two young people agree to stay mostly due to hunger and fatigue but not without a mixture of curiosity and ingrained British politeness. Among the party guests are a notable British poet , a violinist, an archaeologist and "Mrs. Croc" herself -- Beatrice Lestrange Bradley, Gladys Mitchell's series detective. Any mystery novel fan who knows their Mitchell should see that the inclusion of this odd superstition will serve as an omen that will bode unpleasantness to come. And it's not long after the party that a headless corpse is found on the grounds nearby. Could it be the body of the missing Harry Lingfield?

This is one of the liveliest starts to any Mitchell book I've read and the mystery is more than satisfying. The story has all the requisite good parts of a well written and engrossing Mitchell mystery with little of the bad to offset the overall enjoyment. There are interesting young people as charming leads, good honest detection on the part of Mrs. Bradley and little of her psychological lecturing, scenes involving sporting activities, and Laura Menzies, Mrs. Bradley's Scottish secretary, serving in a minor role as cohort in adventuring and sleuthing for Roger and Dorothy. Additionally, there are a variety of unusual Mitchell touches that pop up throughout the action.

Roger is a teacher at a boys' school and we gradually learn that he is also a published poet with name recognition. The always well-read and hip Mrs. Bradley immediately recognizes his name and recalls his most recent book impressing Roger to no end. This is also Mrs Croc's sly way of stroking his ego so that he will do anything she asks of him. Roger also turns out to be an accomplished rugby player in a scene all too often found in the series -- a descriptive, action-oriented game/competition that shows off Mitchell's love of sport and athletes. Dorothy is also an athlete herself and we see her vaulting fences with ease leaving Roger behind to scramble when she helps in searching the vast estate for clues to help identify the decapitated victim. Archery will also figure prominently in the solution of the crime.

No Mitchell book is complete without her trademark irreverence and black humor. Mrs. Bradley makes jokes about the headless corpse letting loose with her cackling laughter several times and has fun trading jibes with the arrogant police inspector in charge of the murder investigation often outright insulting him. The identification of the corpse proves difficult not only for its lack of a head but due to the absence of any personal effects. Luckily, Mitchell solves this problem by giving the corpse some unique scarring -- on his ass cheeks! I dare you to find something that taboo in any of her fellow mystery writers' books from this period.

In this book we also learn some fascinating personal details about Mrs. Bradley.  One, she is an expert archer and easily pulls off some dazzling work with a bow and arrow scoring a few near bullseyes.  Two, she steps in to save a musical concert flagging due to an injury on the part of Claudia Denham, the violinist, by delivering an impromptu rendition of "Ave Maria" on the cello.  Mrs. Bradley never ceases to surprise us with her myriad talents.

The mystery plot will center on some secrets in Claudia's past and a decidedly British motive based on a code of honor.  There are enough baffling puzzles like a burned out car that seems to have vanished, the confusing identity of the corpse, and the reasoning for the decapitation to keep the reader engaged. If the final solution is a bit predictable it does not detract from the overall enjoyment of the book. Here Comes a Chopper is a successful mix of Mitchell's love of mainstream novel writing, excellent characterization, and bizarre mystery plotting. Only when the story takes a detour with a group of rambunctious boys on a field trip in London does the book tend to lose its focus. But as a former schoolteacher herself Mitchell seemed to be very much at home writing about young people and children. If a school shows up in the plot (and there are many of them in the long series), then school kids will almost always play a minor role of some sort. Mrs. Bradley often seems like a misbehaving teenager with her unconventional attitudes and flippant remarks and that cackling uncensored laughter.

Some good news for Gladys Mitchell fans -- at least those of you on the other side of the pond.  It appears that Vintage Books (in the UK only) is planning to release a handful of Mrs. Bradley mysteries in October 2013.  Here Comes a Chopper is slated to be one of those books. I even found a photo of the book's cover (seen at left) on a UK book website so this one may definitely be available later this year.  It happens to be one of the more difficult Mitchell books to find in the used book market; cross your fingers that this one finally is reprinted. When Gladys Mitchell is on target she is one of the most delightful and original mystery writers of the Golden Age. Here Comes a Chopper is one of her best.

The other titles planned for release, nearly all of which have been practically impossible to find for some time, are: Groaning Spinney, The Echoing Strangers, The Devil at Saxon Wall, My Bones Will Keep, The Devils' Elbow and St. Peter's Finger. Each one has been rated highly by some of the more expert Mitchell fans out there including Nick Fuller, her most recent defender, and Jason Hall who runs the superb Gladys Mitchell tribute website.  I urge you to visit the site if you are interested in learning more about the great Gladys.

READING CHALLENGE UPDATE: Up to six out of the minimum of eight books required for the "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2013 - Scattergories" sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. The book fulfills the category Amateur Night. Previous reviews for the challenge are listed below:

Murder is Academic: Murder from the Grave by Will Levinrew
Colorful Crime: The Woman in Purple Pajamas by Willis Kent
Jolly Old England: Murder in Blue by Clifford Witting
Scene of the Crime: The Mystery at Stowe by Vernon Loder
Staging the Crime: Death in the Limelight by A. E. Martin

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Terminators - Berkely Mather

Eleven years after his first appearance in The Pass Beyond Kashmir Idwal Rees is teamed up once more with his bloodthirsty and belligerent Pathan cohort Samaraz in a tale of espionage and derring-do that only Berkely Mather could have written. This time the duo face a band of marauding Tibetan nomads while on the hunt for a missing spy. Oddly enough that spy turns out to be Mather's second series character -- James Wainwright, a hapless and insecure British agent who appeared solo in two previous books by Mather.

The Terminators (1971) begins with a hijacking sequence that is eerily resonant in its detail of airport security systems. I remember the skyjacking paranoia of the 1970s that was largely responsible for the installation of metal detectors throughout the airports of the world but the way the hijackers manage to sneak weapons on board in this novel will be all too familiar to any modern traveller. Once again Mather creates some eyebrow raising scenes that predict criminal behavior yet to come in the real world. The hijacking plants the seed for the hair rising climax that takes place in the final third of the book. Once the prologue is done the story focuses on Rees and Samaraz and their assignments for a covert British secret service agency known as "the Firm".

And for those who are familiar with Rees in his first outing The Terminators will seem like a regular homecoming of characters. In the first recounted escapade of many engaging action scenes the corrupt Indian police office Nadkarni and his Sikh colleague appear briefly only to fall victim to a brutal attack. When Rees receives his assignment to track down Wainwright he learns he will have to travel to the home of the blind General Culverton, father to his old flame Claire, a nurse at the Tibetan refugee hospital. He will also learn that Wainwright and Claire have struck up a relationship that will serve as fuel for a rivalry between the two men. This portion of the book -- a long bickering/arguing sequence -- is the only time where my interest in the story flagged. I could have done without Wainwright's petulance, the juvenile name calling, and his "I'm such a loser" attitude as well. He does, however, step up to the plate in a final heroic act in which he proves himself to be not as self-serving as he at first painted himself.

Mather's unusual sense of humor comes into play throughout the book. We get a variety of awful insults, some translated literally and some left to our imagination, from the foul-mouthed and ill-tempered bigot Samaraz. The humor is a mix of the salty, the vulgar and the oddball. Here are two of my favorites:
...he had about as much chance of pinching my woman as he had of shoving butter up a wildcat's arse with a red hat pin.

What I know about radio, plus a nickel, wouldn't buy the ghost of Gandhi a haircut.
Best not to reveal all the excellent adventure delivered at the hands of this master storyteller. Mather really should have turned to the movie screen more often in his writing career. This book as the other two I have previously reviewed here is both a cinematic wonder of action, an Asian travelogue and a crash course in Indian/Tibetan/Pakistani relations and politics. If you haven't discovered Berkely Mather yet -- what are you waiting for?

The Terminators is now available as part of the library of Top Notch Thrillers, that fine imprint from Ostara Publishing. You can order direct from them (click on the link) or amazon.com (both US and UK versions). Do yourself a favor and introduce yourself to Idwal and crew soon. You won't be disappointed.

Previously discussed on this blog:
The Pass Beyond Kashmir (also available from Top Notch Thrillers)
The Gold of Malabar


Friday, April 19, 2013

FFB: The Dead Walk - Gilbert Collins

After enjoying the rousing adventure of The Starkenden Quest I had such high hopes for The Dead Walk (1933), the sixth detective novel by Gilbert Collins. The chapter titles are tantalizing ("The Strange Night-Walker, "Suspended Animation, You Know," "The Devil Quotes Scripture") and the opening scene in which our mystery writer/narrator Paul Giffard witnesses what appears to be a walking corpse is the perfect teaser for what should have been a truly macabre murder mystery. Soon, however, the story about a multiple murderer who bizarrely stabs his victims in the throat and disguises the wounds to resemble a surgical procedure becomes a complicated muddle. The numerous murders (they come so fast I lost count!) seem gratuitous and the entire cast of characters is revealed to be either recently released convicts or criminals on the lam and living under aliases. The detection which at first seems clever and unusual descends into dull and endless examinations of footprints in the mud and other "hackneyed devices" as Carolyn Wells once called them. All promise of the surreal evaporates and the book becomes a thriller of the Edgar Wallace school with little of Wallace's trademark action and true thrills.

We get to meet Collins' two series characters in this book. First, there is Inspector Lawton (who I was convinced was a criminal pretending to be a policeman), a legitimate official from Scotland Yard who works with a veritable army of cops both local and from the Yard. He also recruits the mysterious and eccentric Hugh Carding, one of the many 1930s graduates from the Academy for Aristocratic Twits & Amateur Sleuths. His speech is littered with gerunds with dropped g's, he calls Giffard "Old Thing" or "Old Sportsman," and has the habit of ending many of his statements with "...eh what?" He is the closest I've ever encountered to a Peter Wimsey clone. Wasn't one enough?

About one third from the end Carding confesses he has been in prison and is privy to an encyclopedic knowledge of his numerous fellow prisoners. This insider info helps him to identify the many corpses who all turn out to be released convicts. Based on some exchanges of dialogue between Lawton and Carding I surmise in an earlier book Carding was a criminal who helped Lawton and they've teamed up ever since. I have two other Collins books and Carding appears in only one of them, I think. Perhaps I will discover his ture origin and whether or not my inferences are correct.

The dead do not walk in The Dead Walk. More's the pity.
Despite what a modern reader may imagine based on the title there are no zombies in The Dead Walk (1933). Collins tries his best to create an aura of mystery around a dazed murder victim who was under the effects of a botched chloroform attack but the idea of a ghost or a literally walking corpse is soon dispensed with. It should have been better named The Punctured Throat Murders or The Case of the Bloody Bandages because that's really all these odd murders amount to. The murderer as you might expect with all these convicts and criminals in the cast turns out to be a Napoleon of Crime. With a tracheotomy compulsion to boot.

Usually I'm all for as much of the macabre as I can get in a mystery novel. But this one had me giving in to my dormant logical side. Why not stab and run? Well, there is a method to the method, my friends. The killer meticulously bandages each victim to make it seem each has escaped from a clinic run by a "Voronoff surgeon." A what? I hear you ask in your oh so familiar puzzled voices. Let's head to the classroom. Take out your notebooks, please.

"We need your glands! For the betterment of mankind!"
I was surprised to discover the world of monkey gland transplants and the trendy 1920s potent potable known as the Monkey Gland Cocktail the experimental surgery inspired. Sergei Voronoff was a disciple of the Nobel prizewinning French surgeon Alexis Carrel who, in addition to inventing a vascular suturing technique still used today, was involved in early organ transplant experiments. Voronoff never won a Nobel prize or any other prize, but he did win notoriety for his own surgery experiments. He took xenotransplantation to new levels. His work, however, was more akin to that of Dr. Moreau than that of a legitimate healer. He used cells from monkey testicles -- sometimes the gland itself -- and grafted them onto human skin in an attempt to cure his patients' chronic conditions. It apparently had rejuvenating effects on those who underwent the mad scientist's cure. Here, taken from a New York Times article dated October 7, 1922, is testament from a 76 year-old patient: "Voronoff told me that when I again felt myself growing old he would repeat the operation, and that he could perform it in all three times. That ought to take me to the age of 150." Plastic surgery pales in comparison, don't it?

Once again a middling detective novel led me to a serendipitous discovery. I never expected to acquaint myself with a long forgotten chapter in the history of transplant surgery and the genesis of a popular early 20th century cocktail. Guess it wasn't altogether a waste of time. As for the mystery, it wasn't worth it. I certainly don't recommend you track this one down. Chances are I have the only copy in existence anyway. And for once that's a good thing.

PUBLISHING HISTORY: No photo of the book because my copy is battered and mottled with no DJ. Red cloth boards, boring typography on the front, no frontispiece. The book is so scarce I could find no other copies for sale on-line and no photos of the original DJ in the Gregory Bles edition. No US edition exists.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Femme - Bill Pronzini

Femme (2012) is one of two Nameless Detective novellas recently published by Cemetery Dance, an independent press known primarily for horror novels. It's a throwback for Pronzini to the days of the Gold Medal paperback original. Nameless meets his match in a woman who might have been appeared in any of the number of dark crime and noir novels that were the specialty of Day Keene, Bruno Fischer, and especially Gil Brewer. Pronzini has mentioned in 1001 Midnights that The Vengeful Virgin is his favorite of Brewer's books and I can see that wicked Cory Beckett might easily have been inspired by Brewer's legion of bad women who'll do anything to get what they want.

The plot is a basic find-the-man plot with Nameless hired to track down Cory's brother Kenneth who is on the lam from a robbery. As the story progresses Nameless soon learns that Cory is far from the decorous client and loving sister. She has an ulterior motive for finding Kenneth and Nameless is sure it has to do with money. But Cory wants more than just money.

For those who like their woman characters in crime fiction mean and nasty you get more bang for your buck in Cory Beckett than any other bad girl in the genre. She outdoes Phyllis Dietrichson, Cora Papadopoulos and Julie Bailey and a dozen others whose names may not so recognizable. And the final twist disparaged by some other blog reviewers I thought to be the perfect icing on this frigid monster. This is no book for feminists that's for sure. But for a quick dip into the depths of the darkest of noir you can do no better.

This was my brief contribution to a blog celebration for Grand Master Bill Pronzini who turns 70 today. I'm on the road headed home from the French Quarter Jazz Festival in New Orleans. I promised something and this may be short and sweet, but it's a review of a neat little book that I think lives up to, and in some ways surpasses, the kind of noir novel I love from the past.

Happy birthday, Bill! And keep on scribin'!

Friday, April 12, 2013

FFB: Death in the Limelight - A.E. Martin

A hypnotist's act goes haywire when one of the audience volunteers is stabbed in full view of spectators in the opening chapter of Death in the Limelight (1946), Australian mystery writer A.E. Martin's third detective novel. The story opens with this scene as described by the self-absorbed actor Egan Crane and then flashes back in time to introduce the rest of the cast.

We are taken on board a cruise ship recently docked in Sydney harbor and get to meet the cast of characters. Egan Crane, supercilious and full of himself, is an itinerant actor headed to the Colonna Theater hoping he can latch on to some acting work. Though he has grandiose ideas about his limited talent and keeps imagining great things fir himself he will have to settle for vaudeville work. Also on board are Bob Struthers (American) and Janie (Australian) , dance partners who likewise are headed for the Colonna in search of work. By chance they happen to meet Miriam Lindel who is immediately taken with the couple. Miriam is a retired actress and their charm and youth remind her of days gone by when she and he late husband used to re-enact the murder scene from Othello. She asks Bob and Janie about lodgings while in Sydney and when they say they haven't yet found a place she invites them to her home.

Eventually these two alternating stories intersect and we learn that Egan, Bob and Janie were all in the theater where the murder occurred during Herman Flaxman's hypnosis act. Bob and Janie were in the audience while Egan was one of the audience volunteers on stage with Flaxman. The story takes an interesting twist when Egan through sheer luck runs into his half-brother Henry and his wife Hetty and a few pages later learns that his sister lives nearby. Three guesses as to who the sister turns out to be. Bingo! It's Miriam, the loopy retired actress. And it is at Miriam's excessively Gothic home that the bulk of the novel takes place. Miriam at times reminded me of Miss Haversham with her morbid devotion to dear departed Lionel. Her overly protective, surly servant Dugald -- one of the best of the supporting characters -- is like a sassy male version of Mrs. Danvers. These two oddball characters along with other supporting players like Joe Parotti (nee Parsons), an eccentric who trains parrots, a knife thrower (again!) and his nymphet of a wife are highlights in a well told, lively and sometimes complicated plot.


Two wonderful scenes enhance the eerie mood that at times is reminiscent of the best Gothic novels. Bob witnesses Dugald carrying an apparently lifeless body down the stairs in the wee hours of the morning and Egan stumbles into a small theater discovering a full replica of the final scene of Othello including a gorgeous sleeping Desdemona in a curtained bed. But who is she? The same body Dugald carried down the stairs perhaps? All will be revealed, but not before another murder or two take place along with a few shocking and gruesome surprises.

The only fault in this book is Martin's rushed ending in which he attempts to tie up into a neat bundle the many extraneous threads of a complex plot. In a series of lengthy monologues delivered by the police inspector in charge of the investigation the reader is asked to swallow a bit much. After a number of ludicrous leaps in logic and several absurd assumptions Martin still manages to leave a few threads hanging.

A. E. Martin had extensive experience in theater as a magician's assistant, a stage performer, and spruiker (an Australian name for a carnival barker) which adds a dimension of authenticity to his mystery novels with entertainment backgrounds.  As with his other novels  Death in the Limelight also shows off Martin's macabre sense of humor and a predilection for Gothic settings and situations.

Previously reviewed on this blog is Sinners Never Die, Martin's debut novel which is a superior crime novel lauded by Anthony Boucher among many other critics.

READING CHALLENGE UPDATE: Marking down #5 out of the minimum of eight books required  for the  "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2013 - Scattergories" sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. The book fulfills the category Staging the Crime. Previous reviews for the challenge are listed below:

Murder is Academic: Murder from the Grave by Will Levinrew
Colorful Crime: The Woman in Purple Pajamas by Willis Kent
Jolly Old England: Murder in Blue by Clifford Witting
Scene of the Crime: The Mystery at Stowe by Vernon Loder

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Wheatley Resurrected!

Last week I learned that I'm not the only one who thinks Dennis Wheatley deserves another life in print.  In an article published in the The Bookseller it was announced that Wheatley's first 20 titles will be released as ebooks in October 2013. The rights to 56 titles in Dennis Wheatley's long writing career have been purchased. So far only three of the more popular books -- The Devil Rides Out, The Forbidden Territory and To the Devil - A Daughter -- have been slated for paperback releases.

Hoping The Haunting of Toby Jugg will be one of those receiving a paperback edition. Get the Wheatley lowdown  here.

Thanks to Shotsmag for this news.

Friday, April 5, 2013

FFB: I Am Jonathan Scrivener - Claude Houghton

I Am Jonathan Scrivener (1930) is the fourth novel by Claude Houghton, a talented, sometimes visionary, and much forgotten writer, who in his time was acclaimed by Hugh Walpole and P.G. Wodehouse. Later other notables such as Henry Miller and Graham Greene would join the circle of those singing the praises of the cult of Houghton. In a long career of writing novels and stories that blended metaphysical philosophy with the tropes of crime and supernatural fiction I Am Jonathan Scrivener is considered to be Houghton's masterpiece. While I did not find it to be wholly ingenious there is enough in the novel to recommend it as a work of insightful observations on loneliness and friendship, also as a genre novel that foreshadows contemporary paranoid thrillers of identity and betrayal.

The basic story sounds familiar to anyone well read in crime and detective fiction of the early 20th century. James Wrexham, after a period of dreary employment in a lawyer's office and a self-imposed solitary life with no real friendships, comes across a newspaper advertisement for a secretary and library cataloguer. He submits a rushed letter the content of which he later cannot recall and is surprised when he is offered the position outright with no interview and never having met his future employer. I can think of a least four other detective novels which begin exactly this way even to the point of the library cataloguing. There are also numerous stories and novels employing the gimmick of the cryptic newspaper advertisement that leads to a whirlwind of unexpected adventures and nefarious plots (Suspense by Isabel Ostrander and "The Red Headed League" come immediately to mind).  But Houghton uses this advertisement gimmick only as a springboard from which to launch a story that deviates from any expected traditional mystery novel or tale of intrigue.

There are many mysteries that Wrexham faces in his new position. Why was he chosen? Why did Scrivener leave for Paris so abruptly? Why allow Wrexham complete access to Scrivener's house, his tailor, his friends? Is there some sort of ulterior motive in having the library catalogued? But soon these  questions become less mysterious than the man himself. The story shifts into a metaphysical mystery about identity. For as Wrexham soon learns from a variety of friends and associates Jonathan Scrivener seems to be a man of multiple personalities. He is described as a perverse degenerate, a hedonistic adventurer, a misogynous and bitter misanthrope, a lighthearted and witty raconteur, a failed actor, brilliant artist who never reached his potential and so much more. Can he really be all of these at once? Or is he just a fraud? No one seems to really know who or what Jonathan Scrivener truly is. But Wrexham is determined to discover the real man among his many guises.

Wrexham finds himself less a secretary and bibliographer and more of an accidental host to Scrivener's endless stream of guests. Two women even have latchkeys and drop in whenever their whimsy sees fit. The library, a place formerly forbidden to any of Scrivener's friends, becomes a salon for all the visitors and serves as the connecting point between Wrexham, the friends and the absent Scrivener. The books themselves (the cataloguing project is soon abandoned) become the subject of many discussions and reveal even more of the secrets and darkness that Scrivener kept hidden from his friends. Eventually Wrexham will join forces with Francesca Bellamy, a celebrity figure who has achieved notoriety through the highly publicized suicide of her husband, and together they will seek out the mystery of Jonathan Scrivener. Mrs. Bellamy is sure that Wrexham and all the others are the subjects of an experiment, a cruel mind game begun by Scrivener from afar, and that he is perhaps observing them all somehow without their knowledge.

The book is not all sinister musings and melodramatic character revelations. Much to my surprise there were several scenes of absurd humor that came as an unexpected bonus. Wrexham meets the devil-may-care playboy Antony Rivers who takes hims to a Japanese restaurant. The variety of strange foods Wrexham is served is described with grotesque metaphors like a soup that "had long weeds in it which looked rather like serpents who had died in youth" and that "tasted exactly like the old Aquarium at Brighton used to smell." Later Wrexham reports on an argument between a bus passenger and bus driver over the difference of one penny in the fare which reaches a ridiculous conclusion.

Claude Houghton, circa 1933
As the story progresses Houghton has a tendency towards reiteration. He manages to find multiple ways to express his themes, but by the final chapter this reader was weary of them. The interactions between the characters enliven the novel while Wrexham's solo philosophical pontificating tends to drag the novel out of the realm of a novelist into the world of a pamphleteer. Admittedly, there is a suspenseful build-up and Houghton is often eloquent in his speechifying. Wrexham experiences several epiphanies, but due to the repetition the payoff is somewhat anticlimactic.

Sharp readers may catch on much sooner than Wrexham or the others as to Scrivener's exact intentions. The title coupled with a passing reference to Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde may lead some to jump to conclusions about the solution of the core mystery.  Houghton, however, has something less sensational in mind.

For decades I Am Jonathan Scrivener had a history of being a scarce book elusive even to the most assiduous of book hunters. Thankfully, the difficult searches are at an end. Curious readers eager to enter the strange world of Claude Houghton can now purchase an affordable paperback reprint from Valancourt Books. Perhaps the cult of Houghton will rise again.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

FIRST BOOKS: The Mystery at Stowe - Vernon Loder

Let's talk darts, gang. Poison darts, that is. And blowguns. Not exactly the most convenient way to do in your enemy. Cumbersome to carry. No element of surprise in the attack. Imagine whipping out a blowgun that has been cleverly stowed down your sleeve or, perhaps if your agile and flexible, down your trouser leg. The minute it's out your victim is sure to hit the pavement and run for his life. And how far does that blowgun poison dart have to travel? No real range, is there? Even the most healthy of respiratory systems and an exhale of hurricane strength isn't going to get that dart to travel more than the length of your average Golden Age drawing room.

Why then is a blowgun employed so regularly in old movies and vintage detective fiction? For the artistry of it all, I guess. You have to admit it's one of the most ostentatious ways to dispatch your enemy. Sure to make the tabloid headlines and maybe even the front pages of the legitimate press.

Poor Margery Tollard is the victim of a poison dart in The Mystery at Stowe (1928) by Vernon Loder. And it looks like Elaine Gordon, renowned South American explorer and travel lecturer, may be the guilty one with the strong lungs. Artifacts recently purchased from Elaine by Mr. Barley, host of a dinner party at Stowe, have been prominently displayed in the front hall. One of the darts foolishly left out in the open is missing from the small container hung beside the pipe. It ended up in Margery's neck and her body was found in front of an open window in her bedroom. Who is the killer with the flair for artistry and ostentation?

The murder investigation is handled mostly by Jim Carton in collaboration with local police. Recently returned from Africa, Carton had been charged there with some police work. He learned how to read tracks in the dust, look for signs of broken twigs, and other "bushman techniques" necessary for a detective in an undeveloped wild region. Carton puts his African skills to use and does some impressive work going over the grounds outside Stowe. He and the police also discuss the possibility of the blowgun as a red herring a la Christie's Death in the Air (written seven years later). Then Carton's imagination gets the better of him and he starts dreaming up ways that a poison dart can be fired without the use of a blowgun. From an air rifle, for example. Now if only he can find one somewhere around Stowe. Maybe that shifty Jorkins has one, muses Carton. Jorkins, the gamekeeper, was outside at the time of the murder and claimed to see a woman in a nightgown in Margery's room. Trying to implicate Elaine that's what he's trying to do that shifty Jorkins.

Blowgun or punaca & dart bag from Yagua tribe (Columbia & Peru)
Why is Jim Carton so determined to hang the crime on Jorkins and why such a baroque murder method? Because he's in love with Elaine, you silly reader. He must clear her name and win her heart at all at once. At times Carton is more interested in getting Elaine eliminated as the prime suspect rather than uncovering the truth. But this is a detective novel written in the 1920s. What else did you expect?

I enjoyed this book immensely. It was preposterous and entertaining and often witty. A sense of humor in these kinds of detective novels is essential. The opening scene was enough to keep me reading. Two women are playing a competitive game of billiards and gossiping about Ned Tollard, Elaine, and Ned's neglected wife Margery. You just know from their dishy talk that one of those three people is going to end up dead. They paint a picture of Elaine as a femme fatale of the worse kind, Margery as a downtrodden wife, and Ned as a dashing virile man who would set any woman's libido afire.

This year I've been focusing on detective fiction written between 1927 and 1931. This first mystery novel by Vernon Loder, a completely forgotten British writer who was nonetheless incredibly prolific, is one of the best I've read in a long time. The creativity invested in the plot, the many possible ways the crime could've been committed, Jim Carton's inventive experiments using one of the women as his accomplice, a gimmick that calls to mind a very famous Ellery Queen novel (also written much later than this book), and the truly surprising -- borderline genius yet utterly insane -- solution all qualify as criteria for a book I'd love to see back in print.

More Vernon Loder books will be reviewed in the coming months. Only a few of his books were published in both the UK and the US with the majority of them receiving only UK publication. And yes, I fear I must report that most of his books are hard to find. His bibliography is far too long to post here. For a complete list of his many pseudonyms and all of his mystery novels which I have painstakingly verified and arranged in order by each correct pseudonym, please visit the Vernon Loder page at the Golden Age of Detection wiki.

READING CHALLENGE UPDATE: Halfway done with my basic requirement for the  "Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2013 - Scattergories" sponsored by Bev at My Reader's Block. The book fulfills the category Scene of the Crime. Previous reviews for the challenge are listed below:

Murder is Academic: Murder from the Grave by Will Levinrew
Colorful Crime: The Woman in Purple Pajamas by Willis Kent
Jolly Old England: Murder in Blue by Clifford Witting